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Nationalism Without a Nation

The internal tensions of American nationalism make it a tough sell as the theoretical basis for a new right.

Starting tomorrow, a broad coalition of right-wing thought-leaders will be gathering in Orlando to chart a course forward. This year’s National Conservatism Conference, a delayed sequel to the first event held anno Domini 2019, draws together an eclectic group.

TAC contributing editor Sohrab Ahmari is a prominent political Catholic, and other papist postliberals of varying degrees, including First Things editor R.R. Reno and the University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, make appearances on the lineup. Peter Thiel is a German-born Girardian futurist and Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Classical liberals like Richard Reinsch and the Catholic University of America’s Jay Richards are prominently included. Online personalities from Michael Knowles to Dave Rubin appear alongside scholars like Glenn Loury of Brown University. Balázs Orbán is the political director for Hungary’s prime minister. Rich Lowry is the centrist editor of National Review, and Seth Dillon is the CEO of the Babylon Bee, a site devoted explicitly to satire. The West Coast Straussian Claremont Institute is heavily represented. Senator Ted Cruz is the last Know Nothing left in American elected office.

It is difficult to find the line running through this roster. Of course, some degree of diversity in the debate is both necessary and welcome as the post-Trump right sorts out its priorities and allegiances. But some unifying principle, beyond self-identification as conservative, is at least equally important.

If there is one thing uniting a gay British neocon like Douglas Murray with an American populist like J.D. Vance, it might be a belief in borders, a recognition of the value of national sovereignty. That’s good. For too long the American right has largely conceded to the demands of a malignant globalism due to a combination of institutional cowardice and capitalistic self-interest. It is right and just that, given the opportunity, a new conservative movement should reassert the importance of firm legal boundaries that tie people to places.

But it is not enough.

Neither nationalism nor the nation is reducible to borders, and I doubt there’s anyone on this wide-ranging speakers list who would argue otherwise. But if the nation does not amount to a simple assertion of territorial sovereignty, then what is it?

The simplest and oldest definition—from the Latin natio, meaning birth or tribe—obviously cannot be applied to the United States of America, which has never been homogeneous by any reasonable metric. We will never be Hungary, a classically conceived natio with shared roots and a proud common history going back more than a millennium, nor even Britain.

Yet even the understanding of NatCon guru Yoram Hazony of a nation defined not by ties of blood but by “bonds of mutual loyalty” can hardly be taken as descriptive of the America we see around us today, given that shared culture is entirely nonexistent and we have not just no shared history but discrete, warring histories among the various political camps.

Maybe, though, it could be normative. What if the American right could intentionally and self-consciously construct those bonds of mutual loyalty—reimpose shared culture and history on a nation that has grown disparate, detached not just from each other but from any common roots that may have once existed. The U.S. could never import Hungarian nationalism, sure. But what about, say, Israeli nationalism?

The Israeli model has no doubt influenced the architects of American national conservatism. Hazony himself is an American-educated Israeli citizen, and co-founder David Brog is a past executive director of Christians United for Israel. That aspirant American nationalists should turn to Israel for inspiration is intuitive: Though it is certainly not without its difficulties, Israel’s is perhaps the only example in the world of a functioning non-homogeneous nationalism. If, with effort, European and Middle Eastern and Ethiopian and other Jews can unite in a common national endeavor, could African and Asian and European Americans not be likewise brought together?

Well. The remaining question is how. Israel has as its key unifying force three millennia of religious tradition. It may be that only so strong a force could drive a deliberate nationalist project (as opposed to one founded merely in the recognition of natio).

Economic nationalism—the prioritization of the material welfare of the nation’s citizens—is one thing. Like border sovereignty, it is good; but like border sovereignty, it is not nearly enough to define or preserve a nation (though we should not discount the extent to which internal improvements might alleviate a nation’s social ills). A nation needs something more in common: culture.

Nor can that common culture be limited to things like apple pie, baseball, and The Office. I hold, with T.S. Eliot, that culture and religion are merely “different aspects of the same thing.” Culture, says Eliot, is “the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people,” and “there is an aspect in which we can see religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep.” Culture, that is, is the “lived religion” of a nation, regardless of its professed one (if any).

Nationalism requires a national culture, which requires a national religion. That leaves us with two options. First, we could take the plunge and declare a confessional state—lean into the Christian nationalism that critics think they see on the American right. Such a move would simultaneously strengthen the nation by integrating it into a universal order and weaken the nation’s claims as such for exactly the same reason. This is the tension of explicitly religious nationalism: truth is universal, and so the sounder a nation’s religion the less distinct it is. Given this understanding, nationalism paradoxically disappears in proportion as it grows stronger. But this course seems unlikely anyway, at least in the short term, given the fact that (as Eliot noted) such things cannot be imposed altogether artificially; culture and religion are organic.

Second, we could elevate the civil creed and secular history of the nation to the status of religion. This is the implicit program of modern nationalism, which sets up an absolute and definite nation state over and against any universal claims or competing creeds. But supposedly secular nationalism has tensions of its own: the elevation of the nation’s claims to the status of the universal is in tension with their actual particularity; a theoretical order of abstractions is in tension with the natural and organic reality of politics, of natio; the fundamentally illiberal nature of nationalism itself is in extreme tension with the liberal character of any American creed we might enshrine tomorrow. All these and more must be accounted for by anyone on the right who considers nationalism desirable—to say nothing of viable, to say absolutely nothing of salvific.

Nationalism demands religion, certainly, but it seems—at least in this nation and this age—that it demands false religion. And to this there is only one answer:

Locutus quoque est Dominus cunctos sermones hos: Ego sum Dominus Deus tuus, qui eduxi te de terra Aegypti, de domo servitutis. Non habebis deos alienos coram me.